Anniversary of Norway massacre: Are there limits to free speech?

Anniversary of Norway massacre: Are there limits to free speech?
Rescue workers take a body from a ferry boat at the lake shore opposite to the Utoya island, Norway, Sunday, July 24, 2011. Picture: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

As Norway commemorates the 77 people murdered by a lone gunman on this day in 2011, it is a good time to look again at how we talk about those responsible for acts of terror.

Are we causing even more harm by repeating a mass-murderer’s name and explaining his twisted motivation each time an anniversary comes around? After all, that was the precise aim of the right-wing Norwegian extremist who murdered eight people in a bomb attack in Oslo and then went on to shoot dead 69 young people at a summer political camp on the island of Utøya on 22 July 2011.

Before doing so, he posted a manifesto online, all 1,500-plus pages of it, and raged against Muslims, multiculturism and immigration. This man wanted infamy. He wanted to cast a long shadow, and he has done just that.

He has become something of an icon to some extremists and his deranged ideologies have incited others to commit similar hate crimes.

But his reach extends beyond the far-right extremists. Mainstream newspapers have devoted countless column inches to articles that attempt “to get inside” his disturbed mind.

Today, in Norway, the focus for the families of the victims will be on their loved ones and all that the world has lost because they are no longer here. That loss is incalculable, yet it is seldom given the kind of exposure afforded a mass-killer.

Is it time, then, to turn the tables and switch the focus? Should we, the media and general public, commemorate the victims today and ‘cancel’ – to use a term of the moment – the Norway mass-murderer.

Is it time to ignore his violence-inciting words, which are still circulating on certain parts of the internet, “history’s greatest sewer”, to use Timothy Garton Ash’s term.

For some, the answer to hate speech is to provide more free speech. The best way to expose bad or dangerous ideas is by open debate, they argue. The person making the argument should be neither silenced nor ostracised/‘cancelled’, the logic goes.

It is hard to fault that view but there is also room for rules on hate speech to allow us to draw a clear line between criticism and incitement to violence. How legislation might better achieve that is a debate to be aired again when our hate speech laws are reviewed.

In the meantime, there is a lot of merit in the approach taken by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern after a terrorist murdered 51 people in an attack on a mosque in Christchurch in 2019.

She refused to speak the man’s name and asked the public to speak the victims’ names instead.

The man, she explained, sought many things from his act of terror but one was notoriety. “That is why you will never hear me mention his name. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”

With acts of extremist violence on the rise, it has never been more urgent to track how the words of terrorists – and how they are quoted – amply their influence.

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